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Photo: H.Clinton gestures with her arm to HRVP C. Ashton as they walk side by side at a bilateral meeting in Cambodia.

America and Europe’s Pacific Partnership

Opinion - 23 July 2012

Patryk Pawlak, Eleni Ekmektsioglou

The long-anticipated statement that American and European officials have been talking about for months has finally emerged. Announced on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) on July 12, 2012, the statement puts an end to the political toing and froing that both sides of the Atlantic have been engaged in for the past several months. What should come next are concrete actions.

The joint statement touches upon several important issues for the region’s stability: North Korea’s denuclearisation, democratisation in Burma, territorial claims in the South China Sea, and human rights. What stands out from the peace and security section of the statement is the EU’s pledge to support cooperative solutions for resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea.  Given Europe’s vested interests in maritime security and the freedom of navigation, Brussels decision to adopt the United States’ procedural approach –we do not take sides but we want this dispute resolved peacefully- vis-à-vis the South China Sea was a wise choice. The transatlantic partners managed to keep the security part of the statement quite balanced. However, striking the right tone in the trade and economics section appeared to be a more daunting task. Behind phrases such as working together ”to improve reciprocal market access for goods and services including government procurement…and to protect intellectual property rights” one can only read China.

This being said, the joint EU-US statement is an excellent starting point for closer transatlantic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. It breathes new life into the transatlantic partnership’s efforts to coordinate their Asia policies and reaffirms the EU’s willingness to increase its involvement in the Asia-Pacific region. Far more important and complicated than the pledges laid out in the statement, however, is deciding what actions the two sides can take to move from words to deeds. The EU still faces an assortment of obstacles to formulating a clear, coherent strategy for the region that, in contrast to all Council papers so far, puts some actual meat on the bone. Unlike in the US, where the rebalancing to Asia policy has bipartisan support, in the EU the Asia-Pacific region is a divisive issue.

Jonathan Holslag, for instance, argues that European leaders should abstain from taking on a new Asian mission. According to Holslag, it is better for Europe to know its limitations and interests than to make itself look ridiculous posing as a would-be power in Asia. And it looks like some experts from the Asia Pacific would agree with him. Hugh White, one of the most prominent Australian experts, has argued “there is simply too much power in Asia itself for faraway Europe to have any impact.”

On the other hand, Jonas Parello-Plesner, another high-profile European Asia analyst, contends that Europeans should “engage much more in Asian security” and goes on to say that the ”EU’s next mission, beyond the Euro Crisis, is to become a global player.” The results of the survey of more than a hundred European and American experts released recently by the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris suggest that the level of satisfaction with the EU’s current performance in the Asia Pacific is low and that the EU is expected to assume a more active role in the region. But the question remains: how to achieve this?

It is no mystery by now that the EU’s recent activity in the Asia-Pacific is mostly due to pressure from the United States. When the European External Action Service – the diplomatic service of the EU - received the invitation from the State Department to work towards a common agenda in the region, European officials struggled to find a response. Should the EU go to Asia taking the transatlantic path or perhaps focus on its own objectives first? While internal EU competition for Asian markets makes it difficult to define a joint European vision in the region, the long-standing mistrust between the Europeans and Americans contradicts the rhetoric of “old partners sharing the same values.”

Holslag, in his recent article for the European Voice, observes that any European engagement is Asia “would be sheer adventurism if it did not flow from a strategic vision shared by all members.” In fact one could go further than that. For the EU to go to Asia without a crystallised vision of its own strategic objectives would be tantamount to blindly following the US Most importantly, an overt EU-US alignment in the Asia-Pacific would harm Europe’s image in the region. With China being the EU’s second trading partner, creating the impression that Europeans are joining the Americans in an effort to “contain” China would be disastrous for the EU’s Asia policy.

It becomes obvious that the EU first has a number of questions to answer before moving up to the next level. The good news is that the EU-US dialogue on Asia has been ongoing for the last several months and is kept alive by a group of professional and committed officials. This recent political declaration will hopefully strengthen their mandate to create a more detailed roadmap for cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. A number of actions could help to facilitate this process, including:

● In the short term, the EU and US should create a list of their shared interests and capabilities in the region. The process of doing so would help the two sides identify potential issues where their interests diverge and help them design responses to prevent these from imperilling the larger effort, or at least mitigating their consequences. At the same time, this exercise would help avoid duplication of efforts and allow them to allocate resources more efficiently;

● In the medium term, Europeans and Americans need to have a serious discussion about their partnership and its goals. The New Transatlantic Agenda of 1995 will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary and could probably be updated. A focus on Asia cannot be an afterthought or a passing thought but instead must be a part of a broader strategic vision. This exercise should be supported by a transatlantic community of experts whose interactions are currently substantially limited;

● In the long term, both sides of the Atlantic need to make sure that Asia remains stable and secure. To that end, they need to find a way to constructively engage with not just with China but also India and Russia. Given the level of interconnectedness between Asia, Europe, and the United States, any disaster in the region would have major implications for the rest of the world. In that sense, even seemingly soft security issues like crisis management (natural or man-made disasters, pandemics, etc.)  or cooperation on law enforcement could bring much desired results over the next decade.

Now that the process for cooperating in Asia has been initiated, it is of great importance that the EU and the US identify those steps that will take further this cooperation. To be sure, the transatlantic partners have long way to go. At the same time, the Asia-Pacific seems destined to remain on the transatlantic agenda in the foreseeable future. Most probably, it will not be an easy journey, but past diplomatic experiences and challenges have equipped the transatlantic partners quite well to deal with the issue.

This piece was first published by The Diplomat